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The Man Who Sold the Moon is a science fiction novella by Robert A. Heinlein written in 1949 and published in 1950, part of his "Future History" of stories sharing a common background from "Life-Line" to "Da Capo". This story, which has the sequel "Requiem", covered events around a fictional first moon-landing, in 1978. It follows the story "Blowups Happen" in the Future History chronology. In that story, space flight was supposedly assured by a new nuclear fuel produced in an orbiting reactor. In this episode the reactor has been destroyed and the nuclear rocket has been found to be a dead-end.

The Man Who Sold the Moon follows the machinations of Delos D. Harriman, "the first of the new robber barons," who is determined to reach and control the Moon. The story centers on Harriman's wheelings and dealings to accomplish his dream. "I," he tells his business partner, "would cheat, lie, steal, beg, bribe — do anything to accomplish what we have accomplished". Harriman's determination is rooted in his childhood desire to travel to the moon himself, but the responsibilities of running his financial empire may make this dream impossible.

Plot

This line sends us headlong into Harriman's obsession. He is trying to persuade his long-time partner George Strong, who is also a mathematical and financial genius, to join him in his quest. The obstacles are daunting. The promise of nuclear fuel for rockets has evaporated, the fuel shortages of the recent war are hanging on thanks to government inertia, his financial associates are dismissive of his visions. One contemptuously offers to sell his "entire interest in the Moon for fifty cents", whereupon Harriman calls his bluff and tries to buy all the other associates' interests as well.

Harriman tackles his problems in stages. He knows the technical problems are solvable, given the right talent. The financial problems are tougher. He resorts to exploiting rivalries between commercial and political entities. He bluffs that he has been offered a large sum to turn the Moon into a massive billboard using a rocket which scatters black dust on the surface in patterns. To the owner of the "Moka-Coka" company he implies that the culprit is the rival soft drink maker "6+". To an anti-Communist associate, he suggests that the Russians may be capable of printing the hammer and sickle across the face of the Moon if they get a lead in rocket technology.

Harriman also has to tackle political problems. If getting to the Moon becomes an international political issue, it will sap his resources and leave him open to espionage and sabotage. He also aims to keep the Moon out of government ownership, something that will be impossible if he claims it on behalf of the United States Noting that the Moon passes directly overhead only in a narrow band north and south of the equator, he looks to Ad Coelum which holds that property rights extend to infinity above a land parcel. On that basis, Mexico, Central and parts of South America, and corresponding countries in those latitudes around the world, have a claim on the Moon. The USA also has a claim, thanks to Floridamarker and Texasmarker extending into the band. Starting a campaign around the world for countries to assert their rights in this matter, he engineers a compromise whereby the United Nations will manage the Moon, through one of its chartered corporations. Needless to say, Harriman owns the corporation.

Money, however, is the main concern. He sells everything he can, raises money from widows, orphans, and readers of comic books, and basically harnesses every huckstering scheme he knows. Children raise money in classrooms. Promises are made to have all contributors' names engraved on a plaque to be left on the Moon. The writing, however, will have to be microscopic in size. He has the rocket designated as an official US Post Office, hoping to sell canceled stamps from the Moon to collectors. He plants stories that there are diamonds in moondust, intending to secretly place diamonds in the rocket to convince people that the stories are true. He will strenuously deny that the diamonds are from the Moon, being merely part of a scientific experiment, so he will not be guilty of actual fraud.

One thing eludes him. He wants to be on the first rocket himself, but there is only room for a pilot, and a small one at that. Harriman convinces himself he will be on the second ship.

The first rocket takes off to great fanfare. It is launched from Peterson Fieldmarker, near Colorado Springsmarker, and the discarded rocket stages have to be carefully tracked as they parachute down in the Midwest. A cow in Kansas comes to a premature end. The ship eventually returns and lands in the USA. Harriman has to be the first to open the hatch, as the bag of mail had been left behind to save weight, and he needs to surreptitiously get it aboard. While doing so, he asks the pilot if he can have the hidden diamonds. The pilot complies, and then produces real lunar diamonds as well.

As Harriman predicted, once the first flight is made, money gravitates towards his venture to finance more flights using a catapult launcher built on Pikes Peakmarker. The next flight will take a colonization team. He is determined to be on the team, but then his business associates drop their bombshell. One has quietly bought a controlling stake in the corporation and he prevents Harriman from going, claiming that he is too important to the corporation.

Harriman is devastated. The rocket leaves without him. He is another Moses, who led his people to the land he himself was forbidden to enter.

Comments

Heinlein's story was among the first to directly address the issue of space flight being an expensive business and the difficulties of financing it. Earlier Science Fiction usually side-stepped the problem and started with the space ship(s) already constructed and ready to set on their adventures. Even so, Heinlein underestimated the problem; the sums raised by the energetic Harriman, with all the ingenious stratagems described, would have amounted to only a small fraction of what the actual US Space Program would cost.

In passing, the commercial success of sub-orbital and forthcoming orbital spaceflight programs in the early 21st century have validated Heinlein's predictions - the Scaled Composites Space Ship One would have been feasible for the money Harriman assembled, and based on similar projections, a commercial lunar flight as envisaged would be feasible for a commercial organization as well financed as that of Strong, Dixon & Harriman were by the end of the novel.

Related works

The Man Who Sold the Moon is also the title of two books of short stories. The second one also included Heinlein's stories: "Let There Be Light", "The Roads Must Roll", and "Requiem". The first one had included those stories plus "Life-Line" and "Blowups Happen".

Although the science fiction film Destination Moon is generally described as being based on Heinlein's novel Rocket Ship Galileo, the story in fact bears a much closer resemblance to "The Man Who Sold the Moon", whose copyright date shows that it was written in 1949, although it wasn't published until 1951, the year after Destination Moon came out. However, the technology of The Man Who Sold the Moon is very different, in that it uses a multi-stage rocket. Destination Moon has a single-stage vehicle which takes off and lands vertically both on Earth and the Moon, which is practically impossible using chemical fuels alone. (Dialogue in the movie makes it very clear that the spacecraft is, in fact, nuclear powered.)

Influence on other Heinlein works

The character of Harriman appeared in "Requiem", which picks up years later with Harriman as old man who has still not been able to go to the moon. However that story was published in 1940, several years prior to the publication of its "prequel".

The name "Harriman" continues to appear in many of Heinlein's Future History stories as the name of various businesses and foundations, indicating that Harriman's impact on that timeline is significant. The name is also used in Variable Star, a novel outlined by Heinlein but penned by Spider Robinson, although this novel diverges from the Future History.

Comparison with real Moon flights

In reality, it seems that flight to the Moon will remain a government operation for the forseeable future. “The idea that a private investor can put together the funds to develop rockets capable of a lunar mission is extremely speculative, verging on fantasy” said John Logsdon, chairman of space history at the National Air and Space Museummarker to the New York Times [9495]Although private satellite companies are becoming more advanced and continue reaching points unheard of not long ago.

See also

  • David Bowie's 1970 album The Man Who Sold the World and title song have related themes.
  • Joe Haldeman's 1977 short story "A Time to Live" was an homage to "The Man Who Sold the Moon", as well as to Heinlein's story All You Zombies—.
  • Alan Dean Foster's 1983 novel "The Man Who Used the Universe" follows the machinations of a man similarly obsessive and morally neutral, however his ultimate goal is not immediately apparent.


Notes and references

  1. Since the Moon is actually a dark gray color, similar to worn blacktop, a brilliant white dust such as titanium dioxide would actually be more effective.
  2. In reality the Moon was held to be common property of humanity before the first moon landing.
  3. Hawaii, considerably closer to the equator than either Florida or Texas, was not a state at the time of writing


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